Sen. John McCain opened Ashton Carter's Senate confirmation hearing by highlighting the need to cut bloated Air Force spending in outer space. As defense secretary, McCain implied, Carter should cease dedicating so many taxpayer dollars on inflated contracts and instead focus on SpaceX, which has long promised to develop American-made spacecraft at lower rates.
“The cost of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle has exploded from around $100 million per launch to $400 million per launch over the last 15 years after the Air Force allowed years of sole-source contracts while, especially over the last few months, actively keeping out any other companies from competing,” said McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, during the hearing Wednesday.
McCain never mentioned SpaceX by name, though his remarks come after the Hawthorne, California based company took legal action against the U.S. Department of Defense over the bidding process for government contracts. After forcing SpaceX to review its own equipment, the Defense Department skipped the usual bidding process to award United Launch Alliance with a contract for 36 rockets at a price of more than $100 million each.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk called United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, a monopoly that makes competition all but impossible. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 spacecraft would cost have a price tag of less than $100 million and thus would have saved the government $1 billion in annual savings, Musk said.
The suit was dropped in January, though that wasn’t enough for McCain, who has apparently been swayed by SpaceX’s promise to reduce U.S. costs and reliance on Russian-made spacecraft. NASA announced last month that each seat on a Boeing or SpaceX flight to the International Space Station would cost American taxpayers $58 million, compared to the $70 million it costs to rent a seat on a Russian aircraft.
“Hopefully this year we will see the Air Force certify a new entrant, and this competition can finally bring down costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines,” McCain said.